Friday, January 27, 2012

Ahmet Ertegun - The man with Catholic tastes

Since I was in college, which was when book shops had some meaning, and, there was no Flipkart and it was not really feasible to order a book from Amazon, I spent a lot of time in the various book shops we had. Strand Book Stall, Crosswords, Landmark in Chennai [they did not open in Mumbai until much later] and the now defunct Fountainhead in Chennai, the nutty Higginbotham’s and Gangarams in Bangalore, Manneys in Pune were on my list whenever I was in those cities. Later as I started to travel out of the country a visit to a book shop and a music shop was the high point of my trip. I was, and still am quite passionate about western popular music. So when visiting these book shops, browsing thru the Music/Performing Arts sections was a must and over the years I acquired a sizeable collection of books on music.

Some 10 years ago, I bought a book called “What’d I Say” – The Atlantic Story. 50 Years of Music. This was written primarily by Ahmet Ertegun the founder of Atlantic Records one of the greatest record labels. The book was huge, heavy and cumbersome and it had some 900 photographs and 160,000 words. I read it over a few days and kept it away. It remained on a shelf for quite some time, right until this week when I took it down, dusted it, and started to browse thru it again.

From my later years of school my interest in western music developed and grew. I remember carrying Long Playing records i.e. LPs to school to exchange them with my classmates Cyrus, Kushroo, Uday and others. I remember going to Rhythm House at Kalaghoda and sitting in the booths they had, auditioning records before deciding to buy them. Of course you know that LPs are generally nonexistent now and the listening booths at Rhythm House are a distant memory. 

All of us, initially, cut our teeth listening to the Beatles, who does not like them? Then, one morning on a Sunday, I went to Eros Cinema at Churchgate to watch Woodstock in what was known as a `morning show’ – 10 am at reduced rates. That one movie changed me forever. Here, on screen, in Technicolor, were musicians I had never heard nor seen. The music was absolutely electrifying and performances I had never dreamt possible. The images of the Who singing `Touch Me Feel Me Heal Me’ with Pete Townsends arm rotating violently playing the guitar, the image of the racially integrated, mixed gender Sly and the Family Stone singing `Dance to the Music’ with a sound so irresistibly funky. It has has never left me. Who can forget the images and sound of the Jimi Hendrix Experience play Star Spangled Banner? Suddenly, it was an awakening, I thought ‘what is this rubbish I am listening to?’, Please Please Me, Love Me Do, Help and other such favourites. I needed something more. From then on, it was goodbye Beatles, hello rock, funk, blues, R&B.

My tastes remained within the confines of these genres, rock, funk, blues, R&B. Most of my college friends had similar tastes though their favourite bands may have been different from my favourites. For us, Hindi film music was the worst type of music one could listen to. The absolute dregs. Anyone who listened to that was instantly branded a `Vernie’ [short for vernacular – meaning the person had studied in a non English, vernacular medium of instruction school]. One rung above Hindi film music was disco, which was all the rage in the 1980’s. A person who listened to disco was not necessarily a `Vernie’ but certainly someone who had to be seriously looked down upon. Slightly better than disco was pop music. This person had to be pitied. He was capable of making the jump to serious music. He needed persuasion and exposure. By the same token, someone who listened to the blues or jazz was to be admired. This was a man of class, knowledge and someone to admire, hang out with and borrow music from. Today some almost 30 years later I still cannot stand Hindi film music.

Then, last week I took down “What’d I Say” – The Atlantic Story. 50 Years of Music and another realisation swept over me.

By way of background, Ahmet Ertegun and his brother Nesuhi were the sons of the Turkish Ambassador to Paris, London and then Washington. Both were deeply interested in music and in 1947, after borrowing USD 10,000 from their dentist Ahmet along with his friend, founded Atlantic Records. The first recordings by this fledgling company were in what was then considered the contemporary and cutting edge genre - Jazz. To cut to the chase, these earlier recordings were a huge success and Atlantic Records influence and fortunes grew in leaps and bounds. It still exists today.

Ahmet Ertegun

The point I am getting at is something like this. Many of us have rather fixed notions of what we believe is ‘music worth listening to’. As I have written earlier, my tastes are somewhat Catholic, I do like many genres but draw the line at Hindi film music, gazals and classical music, both Western and Indian. These I will not listen to. Conversely, many others have no interest in anything except Indian Classical and so on and so forth. I have also said that we did look down on those who listened to music that we considered inferior or beneath us, like disco or pop. Our tastes are quite parochial and we are rigid in our likes. When I was reading “What’d I Say” – The Atlantic Story. 50 Years of Music, I realised how really narrow minded I was.

By the same token, how truly Catholic Ahmet Ertegun was in his music selection. As the boss and owner of the record label he had to be aware of investments the company was making in musicians, especially considering the costs of recordings, promotions, concerts and fees. This would especially be true of the larger star musicians. As a boss, would he have had to like the music if he wanted to invest company money in it? Or would he have been just a shrewd businessman who was convinced that the musician would reap huge profits for the company? I looked at some of the musicians that were signed up by Atlantic Records:

Jazz pioneers and greats like Leadbelly, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Dizzy Gillespie.

The rock & roll and blues stars like Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller.

The 1960s greats like Dusty Springfield, Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, Cream, King Crimson, Bee Gees Aretha Franklin, to name a few.

The 1970s early disco of Chic, Boney M coupled with AC/DC, Alice Cooper, Jean – Luc Ponty, Abba and the Rolling Stones!

I will not burden you with selections from later years. But do you see the diverse musicians? Led Zeppelin and Abba on the same label? Boney M? Were they not really the worst, disco and pop and cartoons?

How does this work? Is it a genuine love for music; or, is it a realisation that the band will make money i.e. the pure mercenary attitude? Is it the product of a man without any likes but just an ability to recognise hit-makers? I really do not know. To my mind surely, to invest so much in a musician, you must like them. If the owner of a company has such an open mind in his choice, why are we as listeners so choosy? I have no answers. Am I going to listen to Hindi music? Nope.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Lings Pavillion

This is probably Mumbai’s finest Chinese restaurant. Both HRH the Queen and I have been there literally hundreds of times. The restaurant is a favourite with the expatriate Chinese, Koreans and Japanese community. There are always several Asian businessmen frequenting the restaurant especially early in the evening, daintily eating with chopsticks. Later, happy Indian families turn up to order their favourite dishes.

This is a nice looking multi level restaurant. There are thankfully no red lanterns and other cliched Chinese motifs. The ceiling is rather magical.

I have not written about Lings earlier as I had no photographs. It took a few visits to build up a photo bank good enough for the blog.

Lings serves the classic Cantonese style of food that many of us who grew up in what was then Bombay, were brought up on. This is certainly not Szechuan or Hunan cooking. In fact Lings do not do spicy food well at all. I believe that Royal China [Bandra, Sterling], another classic Cantonese restaurant also does not do spicy food well at all. For spicy Chinese I suggest the newer pretenders, China Garden, China Gate, Mainland China and 5 Spice et al. These restaurants specialize in a mish mash of Szechuan, Hunan and Indian Chinese. Nothing wrong with this, but, it’s just a different style of cooking.

The most unique aspect of Lings Pavilion is that it is family run. The family has been running Lings and its earlier avatar Nanking for the last 66 years. It’s now owned by two brothers affectionately called Nini and Baba, and, at least one of them is always on premises. Their wives chip in too. Baba’s son successfully manages the outpost in Delhi. This means that produce is procured and checked by the owners, bookings taken by them and their eagle eyes rove the restaurant constantly. Standards are always maintained. Each time we go there we are amazed at how hard both Baba and Nini work. No holidays. No time-out. Sassoon Dock at 5am to net the freshest catch. On their feet right through every lunch and dinner service. And always ready to pitch in and take orders when the restaurant is super busy. I don’t envy their lives and as Nini rightly said, “the restaurant business is not for the faint-hearted”.

One slight problem at Lings Pavilion is, they are fairly understaffed. There are just not enough Captains taking orders. Stay calm, as this may result in slow or erratic service. The long standing star Captain, the delightfully eccentric and rather energetic Johnny, presumably in a fit of pique, resigned in December 2011. He will be missed.

All the food is good. Their spare ribs are to die for. They are real spare ribs not pork chops. You can have them in two styles either Honey Pepper or Chilli Garlic. The other good starters are Salt Pepper Prawns, the Sui Mai and the extraordinarily good Fried Corn Curd. 

Spare Ribs with Chilli & Garlic
Sometimes they have Bombil on offer, either crisp fried or soft fried Rs 200 + tax . Ask for it, Bombil cooked in this Chinese way is different. Here is the crisp fried version. Delicious with a dash of Soy Sauce drizzled on the fish. The crisp coating contrasts delightfully with the moist soft fish.

Crisp fried Bombil
Another very popular starter is their Sui Mai. These are open dumplings. They are rather well made at Lings with a thin wrapping and they are full of meat. Sui Mai are served with a very sharp English Mustard. Personally I like to add a dash of Soy Sauce to the Sui Mai before adding some Mustard.

Sui Mai

We also had an unusual starter the other day. It was Prawn, wrapped in Spinach, dipped in batter and deep fried.  Absolutely delicious. The Spinach protected the prawn from the intense heat of the oil and the result was a perfectly cooked juicy prawn. I must caution you that this is a bit pricey by relative standards.

Prawns wrapped in Spinach

One of the more unusual starters at Lings is their Fish Spring Roll. Here fish is made into a Pate or emulsion, some carrot and spring onion added as an internal garnish and the pate is stuffed into Spring Roll wrappers and fried. Very nice.

If you have a vegetarian diner with you be sure to order the Tempura Spinach. Yes it is simply Spinach Bhajjiya but its delicious.

Truly sinful, Bacon coated with batter and deep fried.
The mains are diverse and delicious. You get all manner of fish, shellfish, beef, pork, lamb & chicken here. The stews of the day [ask for them] are really astounding. These are large helpings and you get either Beef with Radish, or Chicken and Potato or Pork Belly with Tofu and Shitake Mushroom or Oxtail with Peanuts. This is a prime example of a restaurateur using cheap cuts of meat to make money.  

Pork Belly & Shitake Mushroom Stew
A dish which is rare to find in a Chinese restaurant in India is Beef with Bitter Gourd and Black Bean Rs 250 + tax . This is a classic Chinese combination. The Black Bean is supposed to reduce the bitterness of the Bitter Gourd [Karela to you and me]. This method of preparation is follows a different approach to tackling the bitterness. In Indian food the accompaniment to Karela is sweetened, here there is no sweetening but the introduction of a strong tasting ingredient, Black Bean. Be brave and try this.

Beef with Bitter Gourd and Black Bean
The Pork Meatballs with Bamboo Shoot and Pak Choy Rs 250 + tax are another out of the usual Chinese dishes available. Nice.

Pork Meatballs with Bamboo Shoot and Pak Choy
An outstanding dish which we had recently is Mandarin Fish Rs 450 + tax as of March 2012. Here you get batter fried fish with some strips of chicken and Bamboo Shoot. The earthy Bamboo Shoot enriches the dish and the bland Chicken and Fish add meatiness and texture. A truly wonderful dish.

Mandarin Fish
For a good vegetarian dish I recommend the Aubergine with Chilli Garlic Rs 200 + tax as of March 2012. Its also served with Black Bean sauce bit the Chili Garlic is, in my view, the best.

Aubergine with Chili Garlic

If you like fish and sea food, do have the Crab with Singapore Sauce which is quite different. My favourite is their Pomfret cooked dry with only Chilli Garlic is a lesson in Wok cooking but watch out, you get a whole promfret but it could set you back by an eye watering Rs 1000/-. Prawns in Mustard are nice too.

Mustard Prawn
On a recent visit, in early June, just before the monsoon arrives, Clams are at their best. A special on offer was Clams with Chilli Garlic. We got a portion and it was fantastic. The liquor was just so tasty and flavoursome. Probably the best version of Clams I have ever had.

Clams with Chilli Garlic

Grilled Pomfret with Lettuce 

The meat dishes are different and delicious. The Mongolian Beef with whole Red Chilli is nice as are the Steaks fried with dry spices. My all time favourite is their Roast Pork cooked dry with a hint of Chilli. The sweet of the Roast Pork and the heat of the raw chilli is a winning combination.

Roast Pork cooked dry with a hint of Chilli

Mongolian Beef

Steaks fried with dry spices
Another variation on Pork is something called Special Roast Pork Rs 300 +tax as of March 2012. This was thinly sliced Roast Pork dressed with a red sauce that had a sweet undertone. It was not spicy at all despite the scary colour. Leftovers of this make a great toasted Pork sandwich the next day.

Special Roast Pork
The various pot rice dishes [Prawn & Bacon, Pork mince and Egg] are absolutely fabulous. Please do me a favour and do not eat the silly Bamboo Rice. This is a ridiculous dish. Fried rice is stuffed in a Bamboo and served to you. The Bamboo has no addition to the taste whatsoever, you just pay more for a Fried Rice. The Shantung Noodles Rs. 250 + tax as of March 2012 are another favourite. These are thick noodles stir fried with mixed meat, Celery and Bean Sprout. The Steamed Chinese Bao Rs 100 + tax as of March 2012 are delicious to soak up the sauces.

Steamed Bao

Rice with Pork Mince and Egg

Shantung Noodles
Stir Fried Bok Choy
The food is otherwise reasonable priced with most dishes being in the Rs. 300/ – Rs. 400/ range provided you stay away from the luxury items like Crab, whole Pomfret, and jumbo prawn. Alcohol is very reasonably priced and the food portions are generous to large by normal Mumbai standards. 

Go there if you have not been, don’t order spicy food and I am sure you will eat very well.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Galvin La Chapelle

This is an older review. You could read the newer review here.

Dinner was at Galvin La Chapelle a relatively new outpost of the now seemingly unstoppable Galvin brothers. What an amazingly good looking restaurant. An old disused building in Spitalfeilds has been renovated. The building was original built as a Chapel, never used, was in fact used as a schools kitchen and gymnasium and then abandoned for 35 years. Gorgeous dining room. As impressive as the Wolseley Restaurant at St James. The Wolseley was the old Wolseley car showroom. Both are really beautiful buildings and set the scene for good food.  No masala papad and Pizzas here with extra cheese and Jalapenos and chilli flakes, tomato sauce and mustard on the side.

These photos were taken after we shifted tables.

We were seated at a decidedly crowded and dodgy table and as always were the only non white table in the restaurant. We were not going to complain, however the charming staff [all French] themselves asked if we wanted to change and gave us another table on a higher level. Much better and made for good photography.

La Chapelle has just got its first Michelin star. I have realised that eating in a Michelin starred restaurant is far less intimidating in so many ways than eating anywhere else, especially eating street food. For example, there are menus, and they have accurate descriptions of what you will get. Secondly the waiters have time and patience to answer any questions you may have and most importantly they have the ability to answer the question. Wine ordering is so simple and results so delightful. Just tell the sommelier what you are eating, indicate a budget and you are set. No jhanjhat. Now try [wine aside] doing this at everyman’s street food place. Just try this at a place outside your comfort zone, for example a Bombay walla try ordering street food in Delhi without a guide and without having been there before. You will be all thumbs and awkward. How many times have you been to a Chinese restaurant and envied something that someone on the other table was having? Why? Mis description in menus. How many times have you even gone to the US [allegedly the most casual dining place] and not known how or what to order been bombarded with so many options, on rye, with mustard, with mayo etc etc. Frankly as I say, it’s far easier to just go to a good expensive restaurant. Mind you if you are a Jain with all the money in the world you better eat at home, you have no hope eating in a civilised world. No onion, no potato, no garlic, no ginger, no carrot no meat no fish no egg and, whatever else that is left that you can eat, should be thikha and crispy.

Dorset Crab Lasagne with Sauce Nantaise

Rissotto with spring vegtables

Landaise Chicken with spring veg, morels, panchetta with a asparagus pigeon jus

Barbary Duck breast with caramelised Shallots and an Endive Tarte Tatin

Cold chocolate fondant with Milk Ice Cream and honeycomb

Blueberry Souffle with blueberry coulis and milk ice cream

We had a wonderful meal. The most amazing thing was the accuracy of the cooking. The risotto was creamy and the rice still had a bite. The spring vegetables had colour and character. My Dorset Crab Lasagne was a work of art. The crab had been made into a mousse and placed between sheets of lasagne. I would imagine some sort of Chinese dim sum technique to cook it. I cannot even begin to imagine how the dish was put together. HRH the Queens duck and my Landaise chicken were cooked really well. I mean the cooking point or temperature of the meat was so accurate. HRH the Queens duck was evenly pink and my chicken was cooked thru without drying and had crispy skin to boot. Really good.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Spelling spelling!!!!

A couple of days ago HRH the Queen and me were walking along Sir Pherozeshah Mehta Road. It was getting close to lunchtime. The roadside carts were gearing up for lunch service. I saw a sign on one of the carts. I was initially confused. Then realisation struck, I have taken a photo. Yes these things do happen in Mumbai.

For those who still have not got it, its actually a sign by a Chinese food cart advertising Vegetarian  fried Rice.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Balconies are something of a luxury in Mumbai, especially the old style hanging balconies. In most places, flat owners enclose all balconies and add a few square feet to their usable area. Thankfully we live in a building that has balconies all around the flat and, better still, does not permit any encroachment of the open spaces. After we put in all the palms and bougainvillea and ficus, we still had a lot of balcony space lying unused. So we decided to grow our own herbs and vegetables. After successfully growing basil, chives, mint, kadipatta and ova (a type of oregano) we got more ambitious. It was time to add some vegetables to our repertoire.

So, on our last visit to Thailand in October we bought various seeds – Bok Choy, Holy Basil, Kailan, Chinese Cabbage, Tomato and Chilli – which we planted in the many balconies at home. This involved buying about 100 kgs of soil and some 15 pots, getting the building mali to do the potting and transplanting. The Queen has been lavishing love and care on the plants to such an extent that some of them have grown large enough to be harvested.

Bok Choy

Thai Holy Basil


Chinese Cabbage

So, a couple of days ago we had our first crop of home grown Chinese Cabbage. It’s organic, cholesterol free and fat free too!!! Sound like a bloody advertising campaign. Had it in a delicious stir fry with Shitake mushroom and Oyster Sauce.

Chinese Cabbage 1st harvest

From pot to Wok. Stir Fried Chinese Cabbage with Shitake Mushroom & Oyster Sauce

I can’t wait to eat the Tomato which is growing rather well. The Chillies are doing fine and have just flowered.


Chilli. See flower in bottom right 

While this is slow, watching the plants grow, it’s quite exciting eating the stuff and it really does taste incredibly good.